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Ian Birchall

Class, war and class war

(March 1988)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.107, March 1988, pp.30-31.
Transcribed & marked up Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Campaigns for Peace
Richard Taylor & Nigel Young (eds.)
Manchester University Press, £29.50

MODERN warfare, nuclear or conventional, is the filthiest obscenity produced by modern capitalism. So it is not surprising that throughout the twentieth century women and men, starting from Christian, feminist, liberal or socialist principles, have been driven to protest and campaign against it.

But such protestors have had to choose between two paths: simply to keep their own hands clean by refusing to participate, or to look for an effective way of mobilising mass opposition to war.

This collection of twelve essays attempts to look at some of these problems. The result is very uneven. Several of the articles have little of value.

There is a lightweight introduction from Mary Kaldor and a pedestrian account of the churches and nuclear arms; and the editors have yielded to a misplaced liberalism to allow a Mr van den Dungen to present a collection of right wing smears and slanders against the peace movement. When this and similar dross is swept aside, you don’t have much left for your £29.50.

Nonetheless the book contains a few useful pieces dealing with Marxist and other opposition to the two world wars and with the history of CND (though there is not much evidence of original research). What is lacking, however, is any theoretical framework that can help us to deal with the central question of how to mobilise against war.

Martin Shaw, in a muddle-headed piece called War, Peace and British Marxism argues that it is important that “war should be seen as a central and constitutive process of modern society, not as something marginal or derivative.” He therefore criticises Marxists before 1914 because they “tended to argue their case on the class character of the state rather than the death and destruction which was to come”.

Precisely the opposite is true. Only by understanding the class nature of war and the war-making state is it possible for socialist internationalists to win the support of masses of ordinary workers who are influenced by nationalism and immersed in the problems of everyday life.

Thus in World War One the vast majority of the labour movement defected to patriotism, leaving the genuine internationalists a tiny, isolated minority. But (as Ken Weller has shown in his excellent study of the anti-war struggle in Islington, Don’t be a Soldier!) it was possible for a class-based anti-war movement to win a hearing and make effective propaganda.

Towards the end of the war mutinies began to erupt in the army; tragically, many of the militants who could have taken the lead in these were at home as conscientious objectors rather than with their fellow workers at the front.

In World War Two the situation was even more complex. For most on the left the anti-fascist nature of the war seemed paramount; only a handful of hard-line pacifists refused to fight. Yet strikes, by-elections and other phenomena showed that the class struggle had not gone away. The agitation, led by CP members, for better air-raid shelters involved primarily people who wanted to win the war, maybe even wanted to bomb Germany in revenge.

But the shelter issue offered the real possibility of mobilising such workers against the state that was making war.

There are similar lessons from the history of CND in the sixties. Unilateralists won a paper victory in the Labour Party in 1960. They lost it again when the right organised at grass roots level while the left failed, in Mike Kidron’s words, to “break down the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy into the small chips of class struggle”.

The Direct Action Committee against Nuclear War did make a serious attempt to take the struggle into the workplaces. The result – a one hour token strike in Stevenage. The achievements were limited precisely because the DAC saw industry as no more than one site among others for “direct action” and failed to link the nuclear question to the day-to-day preoccupations of workers.

This book was conceived in the early 80s. It contains several euphoric references to the rise of the European peace movement in the first half of the decade, but no explanation of its subsequent disintegration. In a world permanently threatened with nuclear destruction, peace movements will rise again, but Marxists must learn the lessons of the past if they want to intervene effectively. Unfortunately there is not very much to learn from this book.

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